I am offended by people who are offended! It’s like how I am intolerant of people who are intolerant. It’s a challenge. Somehow I have to ignore the self-referential self loathing, but life is paradoxical and ironical, and I’ve always embraced both (and chaos) as personal philosophies.
Irony and paradox aside the whole idea of being offended has become an aspect of society today. We’ve turned it into a cottage industry, and both sides of politics have heavy weaponized it into a WMD.
The problem is often the legitimacy of being offended. When is it right to take offense, and when might the real issue be our own perceptions (and we should just STFU).
Societies can have very selective responses to people being offended.
As a general rule, offenses by those in power are down-played (if not entirely disregarded), while the slights of the powerless are magnified.
(We saw this play out in the Kavanaugh hearings. His opening statement was so offensive to the body politic it should have disqualified him for a seat on the SCOTUS. At the least, it should have been worthy of far more concern than it got.)
Outside that power dynamic, for us regular folks, modern culture often seems to grant primacy to offense. If a person is offended, then there must be a valid reason for it, and we tend to assume the reason is legitimate.
Further, we view being offended by something as we might view a health risk: a detriment to be avoided (by fiat, if necessary).
As Stephen Fry put it:
Another way to put it is that announcing “I’m offended!” is essentially telling the world that you can’t control your emotions, so everyone else should help do it for you.
At the same time, there do seem legitimate reasons for being offended: I’m highly offended by misogyny and racism, and nearly as highly by general ignorance and stupidity.
As are many, and it’s entirely legit. If anything, it is wrong to not be offended by these things.
Then consider those being offended by what people wear, or by the casting of a TV or movie character, or people saying “Happy Holidays!” instead of “Merry Christmas!”
As a middle ground, perhaps consider being offended by someone burning the flag or taking a knee during the National Anthem. Or by a sports team keeping a historically problematic name (such as “Indians” or “Redskins”). Consider also the offense taken to symbols from the Confederacy.
Clearly there is a spectrum of things that cause offense, so it seems there should be a spectrum of being offended.
I see a lot of ways to categorize being offended, but the crucial one to me has (obviously) to do with the objective legitimacy of the offense.
It is reasonable to be offended by things we can comfortably define as morally wrong, that are evil or malicious. (The trick — as always — is deciding what is morally wrong.)
Hanlon’s Razor offers something of a clue: “Never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence.” We should try to not be offended by someone’s ignorance or thoughtlessness.
It might also seem reasonable to categorize offense based on what people do versus what they say. Except…
Remember Sticks and Stones? And the idea that words could never hurt you?
That’s not entirely true, of course, but there is important truth in it. Even the most hateful words can’t directly “break your bones.” (But they can incite people to do it!)
Our principle of free speech is based on the physical harmlessness of words, but at the same time we also believe that “words can move mountains” (and that you can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowd).
In point of fact, it’s the ideas that move mountains, just as it’s the ideas behind words that are not physically harmless.
A key component of malice is intent — the idea of doing harm.
Ideally, we should not be offended by those who mean no harm.
The idea of doing no harm is what’s behind the idea of being Politically Correct, and as with many good ideas, “being PC” sometimes loses sight of its true goals and becomes a weapon one side uses against another.
Which causes well-earned disdain for “being PC” that becomes a counter-weapon against legitimate sensitivity (the accusation, “Oh, you’re just being PC” implying illegitimacy).
(This is why humans can’t have anything good.)
I think the legitimacy we grant offense is what turns the good idea of being aware of, and sensitive to, other people into a numbing blanket that makes a mockery of the idea.
We absolutely should try to be sensitive to the feelings of others, but we need some sort of smell test for when it goes too far.
We probably need to just lighten up a bit. Having hair-trigger sensitivity results in the same thing viewed differently by different groups.
For instance, one group finds “Happy Holidays!“ inclusive, serviceable, and (this is the important part) preferable to the idea of offending those who don’t celebrate Christmas.
Another group is offended people aren’t saying “Merry Christmas!“ because it removes Christ from the holiday celebrating His (official, but not actual) birth.
These ideas become weaponized in a supposed “War On Christmas.”
Pity we can’t, you know, in the spirit of Christmas, just agree to be generous and let people say “Merry Christmas!“ if they want without it being an attack on non-Christians, and to say “Happy Holidays!“ if they want without it being an attack on Christians.
(No one is attacking anyone, okay?)
Because this “War On Christmas” is either absurd or was lost long ago.
On the one hand, the Christmas stuff — lots and lots of Christmas stuff — comes out earlier every year. Unmistakable Christmas now starts before Thanksgiving, and it’s only a matter of time before it starts before Halloween. (And then what, Fourth of July?)
On the other hand, who celebrates actual Christmas anymore? Who remembers what it supposedly means? It is pretty much already back to being the pagan Solistice holiday it started as. After all, the season starts with something called “Black Friday.”
Another example is football players taking a knee during the National Anthem.
This, too, has been weaponized by politics. The emotions people have towards their flag is leveraged in what is ultimately a racist way. (See Take A Knee)
As a former hippie and current libertarian, does seeing someone burn the flag of the USA nevertheless still manage to tweak a little something in my gut? Yes, it definitely does. Appropriate displays tweak it the other way (the good way). Feelings for our flag are strong!
But my main response to seeing someone burn the flag (because I’m not slave to my emotions) is to think: “What a jackass!” And shake my head.
There’s no harm done (my country is way stronger than that), and it probably makes the jackass feel better. More importantly, maybe the jackass has a point I should listen to. Maybe he’s trying to get my attention.
Which is what’s happening with football players, and we should definitely listen to the point they’re making.
Even if you think they’re being a jackass.
(Both football and the country can take it. At least, both of them claim they’re pretty tough…)
On a more serious level, symbols from the (American Civil War) Confederacy also divide people.
One group sees them as emblematic of slavery, another seems them as representing its cultural past. (Some in the latter group are aware of the problems of the past, but decouple them from a nostalgic view.)
While the moral view seems clear, this is a more complicated issue because so many do have a nostalgic view or are willing to defend the past as is. (A similar issue exists with sports team names.)
Social change is hard, and about the only way it works is through the young. Provide the means for new generations to make better choices, and society can move forward.
In the end, I wish we could learn to think twice about this being offended business. Some of it certainly is appropriate, but don’t we go too far, like, all the time?
As is oft said, one of the rights you don’t have is the right to never be offended. Equally oft pointed out is that, in a truly free society, it’s damn near guaranteed that you will be offended by someone.
Try to see it as the spice, the stuff that makes life interesting.
Or just lighten up. Fight for things that matter.
Stay unoffended, my friends!